Monday,16 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1291, (14 - 20 April 2016)
Monday,16 July, 2018
Issue 1291, (14 - 20 April 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Art to change ideas

A group of artists is changing perceptions of Al-Zaraeeb residents in Cairo, writes Mai Samih

Art to change ideas
Art to change ideas
Al-Ahram Weekly

Al-Zaraeeb, in the Zabaleen area of Manshiet Nasser in Cairo, is remote from the city’s busy downtown area. This is the district where many people, especially Copts, support themselves by recycling garbage or raising cattle or pigs, and the area has long been marked by the activities that go on there.

In March, a group of artists decided to try to change the way the inhabitants of the area are sometimes perceived by painting on the exteriors of houses and barns in the area. The project is being undertaken under the name of “Perception”.

“The inhabitants of Al-Zaraeeb don’t live in garbage, even if this is sometimes how they are perceived. Anyway, it is not their garbage. It is the garbage of the whole city,” said graffiti artist and initiator of the project el-Seed. “I chose ‘Perception’ as the name of the project because it is all about changing the way we look at things,” he explained.

Using white for writing text and orange, blue and black for backgrounds, el-Seed and his team have successfully woven together letters and colours on the buildings in the area to create stark contrasts to the red brick of the heavily populated area. Al-Zaraeeb is an area where colours beyond beige for workshops, red for houses, and yellow for animal feed are rarely seen.

El-Seed is a French citizen of Tunisian descent who blends traditional art with the modern art of graffiti. He mixes street culture from Paris with Arab history, giving a poetic impression to those who see his work. He aims to change the viewer’s state of mind, as well as spread a feeling of peace in the places he works, according to his website.

It was curiosity and his love of exploring areas like Al-Zaraeeb that drove el-Seed to choose the place for his work. “It was the ideal area to raise the topic of perception. It was a pretext to open a dialogue on the subject. If the Al-Zaraeeb community had been in Japan or Peru, I would have gone there as well,” he said.

“People in the area are seen as poor, marginalised and isolated. But in fact they are the contrary. They are associated with those ideas in other people’s minds because they work in garbage. The most important thing about this community is that the people here don’t live in the garbage but from the garbage. They are proud and strong people.”

El-Seed has painted 50 houses in the area, funding the entire project himself, which took him a year to plan and three weeks to carry out. He was assisted by a team of 20, including some residents of the area. He only used spray paint and paint purchased from the local Egyptian market.

He also expressed his joy at the hospitality of the inhabitants of Al-Zaraeeb. “The residents assisted me in every sense. Part of my team was from the area, but everyone there was very welcoming to the project. They opened their hearts and their houses to us,” he said.

Through his project, he hopes to “question the judgements and misconceptions society can have of a community based on its difference”. A quotation from St Athanasius of Alexandria, a Coptic bishop from the 3rd century CE, appears on some of the buildings.

“Anyone who wants to see the sunlight clearly needs to wipe his eyes first,” he said. This describes el-Seed’s own state of mind after becoming acquainted with the people of the district. “I think this quote reflects perfectly the purpose of the project,” he added.

It was the first-hand experience that he gained after dealing with the people in Al-Zaraeeb that changed his ideas about them, he says. “The first time I came to Manshiet Nasser, all the ideas I had about this community were wrong. My perception was blurred by all the wrong ideas I had heard about them. If you want to judge someone, or a community, you must look at them with eyes cleared of all the misconceptions you might have.”

The paintings are a source of joy for the inhabitants of Al-Zaraeeb. Some give accounts of how foreigners came and were received like members of their own families simply because they came to make a difference to their lives. One inhabitant of Manshiet Nasser told of how a group of artists had been integrated into the neighbourhood.

“It all started when a group of Arab artists from Tunisia, Morocco, and Algeria came to visit the priests at our local monastery and told them about the idea of painting the buildings. They agreed to paint the outside of the houses at their own expense and add their inscriptions to them,” he said, adding that the artists had finished the paintings some 15 days ago.

“They are wonderful, and they were carried out from their own pockets as no one paid a single penny for their expenses, not even the monastery. The paintings have given a beautiful appearance to our neighbourhood,” he said. “They chose only the houses and barns large enough for the paintings to be done in circles, so not all the homes were painted.”

The paintings are mainly on the top quarter of the buildings, especially the roofs and the upper three to four storeys. 

Another resident agreed. “The paintings are amazing, and they have been a chance for us to meet nice people and people from abroad,” he said. According to an official who chose to remain unnamed, the el-Seed group obtained permission from the local authorities, the local church, and the owners of the houses before they started to work.

According to el-Seed’s website, in 2012 he completed his largest piece of work to date in the Tunisian city of Gabes where he painted the 47-metre minaret of the Jara Mosque. He also took part in the La Tour Paris in the French capital, the largest collective street art exhibition in the world, in 2013. He has decorated road tunnels in Doha as part of a Qatari government project. He has also designed scarves for a famous French fashion designer and written a book, Lost Walls, on his graffiti art experience in Tunisian cities.

Various NGOs have long been working with local government units to ensure better living standards for the inhabitants of Al-Zaraeeb, including Roh Al-Ahabab Li-khedmet Al-Beaa (Spirit of Youth for Environmental Services), which teaches children how to recycle and ensures they go to school, and Gameyet Hemayet Al-Beaa (Protection of the Environment), which teaches young women how to recycle paper and make carpets. These NGOs work hand in hand with private companies.

However, some Al-Zaraeeb inhabitants say they still need help if their lives are truly to improve. “We need a school for girls in the area to save them from going all the way to the downtown area for their education and to ensure that they make it to and from school in safety. We also need a local fire station,” said one local resident.

“We need a decent sanitary system for our homes, as most of the houses here are still not connected to the main drainage station. There are some homes that have to share one tap in hallways outside the houses,” added a local homeowner.

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